[the plot thickens ... with some more action in the toilet]
Shanks had some difficulty understanding what happened next. From the T.V. he had learned what a male needed in order to be popular with females. He could check himself off against the list. Handsome? Yes. Slim? Yes. Tall? Yes. Tanned? Yes. He was all these things and more.
So it was something of a blow when Peg's first reaction to him was to stifle a scream, haul up her pants, and reach for the door. Fortunately Shanks did two things to save the situation. Firstly, he did nothing. That is he stayed perfectly still. Then, and he had no good reason for doing so, he began humming "God Save The Queen." Perhaps his royalist streak came out under pressure. Whatever the reason, it had the desired effect.
Peg's hand froze on the doorknob. She stood there gawping. A tinsel-thin tuneful rattle was coming from the direction of a spider on the toilet wall! It crossed her mind that Terrence had put a trick spider there - one of those things with a computerised tune inside it. But the sound was too random, too "animal", to be electronic. It wasn't even in tune. And the creature she was staring at looked far too realistic. Then, as she stood there open-mouthed, the sound changed. The spider was speaking. She swallowed hard to clear her ears, but it altered nothing. The spider was speaking to her.
In his mind Shanks had gone through all kinds of clever opening lines. Perhaps he'd try "Do you come here often?", or "We must stop meeting like this", or even "Hello, this is Armitage Shanks. First the headlines." There was no shortage of patter he'd picked up. Yet somehow when it came to it, he fell back on old spider habits. "Like a bit of cockroach?" was all he could manage.
Peg closed her mouth, and appeared to swallow, before she replied. "I ... err... thanks. I mean no thanks. I ..?" She seemed just as lost for words as her host. Suddenly Shanks remembered his manners. "Oh ... please sit down." With that he gave a broad friendly smile. What Peg thought of it was unclear, but she accepted his invitation and sat back on the toilet seat (this time its cover was down.) She adjusted her clothing, all the while keeping her eyes fixed on the spider.
"Please allow me to introduce myself. I'm Armitage Shanks, Benign Huntsman, Lord Of All That You Survey." He bowed and flourished one of his front legs as he said this. All the chivalry he'd learned from a recent television series was being recalled. Peg strained forward, unable to hear clearly the wispy speech coming from her host. But she picked up the name. Armitage Shanks. Where had she heard that before? She had no time to think now. The spider was rocking gently up and down on his feet, obviously waiting for a returned introduction from the squatting figure.
"Oh.. um, I'm Peg Priddle. But everyone calls me Square Peg ... 'cause I don't fit in." She gave a little laugh, but she didn't really look amused. Shanks wasn't either. Peg began to blush, but quickly covered it up by blurting out "Anyhow, how come you can talk?" Shanks hadn't expected that question. It crossed his mind that being benign might mean you could talk to humans. But Aunty Scuttle was benign too, and she'd never said a word to a person as far as he knew.
"I watch the old box" he replied, slipping into Televisionese. Peg just looked puzzled. "You what?" "I learned it from the telly. You know, Play School, Sesame Street, Neighbours, Eastenders.." He would have gone on to list his Top Forty programs, but Peg interrupted. "You mean you learned how to speak by watching television?" "Correct. Please wait till I say your name." Shanks was still quite nervous. It was only with a conscious effort that he didn't break into "God Save The Queen" again.
"But I thought all spiders were .." Peg stopped herself from insulting her host. "Were what?" Shanks asked innocently. Before she had a chance to think up a good reply, they both heard footsteps followed by a voice calling out. "PAIRG...Peggy". They recognised Peg's Grandfather. "Coming Pa," she bellowed, then turned to Shanks as she got up to leave. "Look I'm gonna have to go. Can I meet you here again? After lunch?" He nodded. "Sure thing. Adios till then." With a quick if still bewildered grin, Peg left his room.
Shanks sat there stunned. Then he slowly began to feel warm all over. He'd actually got to meet the girl of his dreams. And what's more, he had a date to see her again. In near ecstasy he bounded off towards the ceiling. "Oh bloated blowfly, what did Shanks do to deserve this. Ah moldy mosquito, my numbers have come up! Oh curdled cockroach..." Which reminded him. He slipped off into the ceiling to have one of these delights. No, blow it all, he might have all three!
As Peg came out of the toilet, her Pa gave her a queer look. "Who were you talking to in there?" With a perfectly straight face Peg said simply "Oh, I was talking to a spider." "Not another bloomin' Huntsman? I oughta spray the whole place." Peg opened her mouth in horror, but her grandfather was continuing. "But I s'pose they'd soon be back. And they say Huntsmen are benign enough. Matter of fact, I parcelled one up in paper and took him out to the garden last night. Don't reckon they bite, but I weren't takin' chances." Then, almost as an afterthought he added, "Besides they give mum the creeps." He'd never met a woman who wasn't scared of spiders, and he wondered at Peg casually talking to one in the confines of the toilet.
As Peg walked furtively along the hallway to the toilet, she was sure she was alone. It was three days now since she'd met her extraordinary new friend, but she was still being careful. She had the feeling no-one else was quite ready for him yet. Yet in her own mind she felt she'd always known him. He was so interesting; so little like a spider, or what she had imagined spiders to be like. Other girls could have their dumb rabbits and kittens. She would have her talking Huntsman any day. Cute and cuddly wasn't all there was to look for in an animal friend. Still, just at present he would be her secret friend.
Outside the toilet she gave her special whistle to let Shanks know she was coming. She looked quickly around to see if she had been noticed. Nothing. She turned the wobbly doorknob and went in, looking up to see if Shanks was in his usual spot. Catching sight of him she smiled, greeted him, and turned to latch the door. At the same moment there was a creak and a thump, and the door was suddenly flung open straight into Peg's forehead. She shouted in pain and slumped to the floor, holding her head.
Ignoring her, Terrence pushed his way into the room. "Who do you think you're talking to?" Peg lay moaning on the floor, but as Terrence tried to get past her, she knew she had to stop him. Just as he saw the large brown spider, she started screaming at him. He gave her one hard look; did the same to the spider, then calmly left the room before his grandparents arrived. There'd be plenty of time to get her back, and find out all about this grotesque thing she'd been talking to.
The large tom-cat stretched, head low, tail high, a bumpy, gingery slippery dip. Geoffrey had had a hard morning following the sunshine around the veranda. It would still be two more moves before the sun reached his basket. Till then he would have to make do with hard floorboards. Such was the lot of Geoffrey Boycat, retired mouser, ratter, birder and blue-tonguer extraordinaire. Venerable though he was, he felt hard done by. Surely a retired champion should be treated with more respect. Why, for instance, wasn't his basket moved around for him? As he settled back down on the floor-boards, he vaguely wondered whether the sun might be asked to move for him.
As Geoffrey contemplated this, he was disturbed by the one bane of his life. A yap, a shuffle of paws, and a disgusting snuffling sound told him he had a visitor. Lump Sum, the Pekinese dog, had come to see him. Geoffrey should have been impressed. Lump Sum was a profoundly aristocratic dog. He had a long pedigree to prove it. He had blue ribbons from the Electrona and Snug District Dog Show. And he had a venerable Pekinese name, even if he was too stupid or lazy to remember it. (Was it Lap Sang Sou Chong? Or was that the type of tea Mumsy liked?)
Regardless, Geoffrey most definitely did not venerate this pathetic excuse for a dog. The thing would make a better floor mop. Geoffrey turned his face away from the wheezing wimp, and pretended to be asleep. He could not help twitching his ears and wrinkling his nose at the awful smell that hovered around Lump Sum. The dirty thing had been rolling in rotting fish again.
Lump Sum was too thick to notice any of this. He waddled up to Geoffrey and nudged him with a dribbly muzzle. When this brought no response, he barked loudly in the cat's ear. With a slow, measured movement of the head, Geoffrey turned to face the dog. At the same time, he aimed a lightning-fast pawful of claws at the rumpled face. Dumb or not, Lump Sum was also quick. He effortlessly dodged the paw, yapped once more, then launched into excited chatter.
"Guess what ... guess what ... hruhh hruhhh!" He slobbered sibilantly. "Spider can talk! Talk 's good as me! Over nek door. Hruhh hruhh ... Spider talk ... 's good as me!" Geoffrey raised one sarcastic eyebrow, but didn't comment. Despite himself he was interested in what this gibbering idiot was saying. Lump Sum went on. "The girl, the boy, the visders ... hruhh hruhhh ... you know, nek door. Over nek door." He pointed his mangled muzzle in the general direction. ("You're not a pointer old thing", thought Geoffrey with a scornful sneer. "More of a panter, really.") Lump Sum continued to wheeze and waddle as he told more of his news.
The cat lay there waiting. Economy of movement was one of his creeds. He knew the Lump would get to the point eventually. There were several agonising minutes while the dog put the English language through torture. Eventually Geoffrey worked out that something genuinely unique was happening "nek door". Something he could use to add to his already considerable fame and prestige. He might need help, someone to do the dirty work. But he could see that the capture and execution of a notorious spider would set him up for life. He knew how much They (the Feeder and the Adorer) loathed spiders. Especially the Adorer. Please her and you pleased the Feeder. Please the Feeder and ... ahhh ... Food, Fame and Fortune.
As he lay there the wheezing background of Lump Sum's chatter became waves lapping on a tropical shore. As Geoffrey slipped off into a delicious dream, one pearl was washed up on the shore. Among the dog's rabbitings he distinctly heard "... but the boy he hate the spider. The visder, the boy ...oooh my words, he hate the spider." Now that could be useful. Soon. Meanwhile sleep took priority, even over food, fame and fortune. There would be time for those soon enough.
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